A fresh approach: why musical side projects are about more than just having fun

From Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong to the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl, we take a look at why new bands are vital to maintaining the careers of established rock stars

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Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day
Global Citizen Festival, New York, USA - 23 Sep 2017
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One of the surprise rock-music releases this year was Love Is for Losers, the debut album by The Longshot – a new side project by Billie Joe Armstrong, the singer and frontman of stadium-packing rockers Green Day.

Those familiar with Green Day will enjoy the new side project. The melodies are catchy and ebullient, nearly all the songs are built around four guitar chords and the lyrics are odes to youth – basically, they sound like classic Green Day songs, albeit stripped of the seriousness of their later albums American Idiot and Revolution Radio.

At present, Armstrong is revelling in his latest tour with The Longshot as he performs in small venues that wouldn't be possible if he were with Green Day.

It is that new-found enthusiasm that’s partly responsible for the continued allure of side projects in rock music. From Paul McCartney to Dave Grohl, they provide a valuable outlet for successful musicians to keep challenging themselves, de-stress or scratch a long standing creative itch.

A chance to reboot stalling careers

They can also form the way out for artists whose career has reached a crossroads.

When it came to UK group Genesis, it was the side projects sustaining the band. After the group released their well-received self-titled album in 1983, a creative rut began to creep in and the Phil Collins-led group decided to take a break to pursue their own inclinations.

The fact that Collins' solo record, 1985's No Jacket Required sold big numbers was expected. But what was a surprise was the success of guitarist Mike Rutherford with his new outfit Mike and the Mechanics. Their 1985 self-titled debut album was a fine showcase of his underrated songwriting chops with its hits All I Need Is a Miracle and Silent Running (On Dangerous Ground); it also went on to ultimately sustain Rutherford's career when Genesis eventually split up in 1998.

When it comes to political-rock group Prophets of Rage, the relatively new side group provided a welcome relief to members whose careers had effectively stalled. For the group's twin frontmen, rappers Chuck D and B-Real, the band was a much needed outlet to creatively energise after years of singing old hits with respective groups Public Enemy and Cypress Hill.

A new approach

The side project is also an avenue for artists to explore new sounds and styles in a risk-free environment.This is what drove Paul McCartney to work with English producer Youth (real name Martin Glover, from British post-punk group Killing Joke) in 1993 to set up the group The Fireman. Over three albums, the duo released an earthy meld of dance music and pop that beguiled critics and introduced McCartney to a new kinetic songwriting approach that was far removed from the studious methods of his solo work. "It was a great departure because it seemed more like improv theatre," McCartney later said. "It was like writing on the spot, which I think lent an electricity to the whole sound."

At least McCartney's main concern was a solo career where he could call the shots. Damon Albarn found it challenging to channel his love for dance and African rhythms into the sound of Britpop group Blur, in which he was the frontman. As a result, he set up experimental pop group Gorillaz, which became a big success on its own, in addition to the dubby The Good, The Bad and The Queen, whose self-titled debut album remains a cult favourite.

But not every side project is made to alleviate creative frustration. They also provide an opportunity to fulfil long-standing dreams. Even rock stars are music fans themselves. This was the reasoning behind Foo Fighter's singer Dave Grohl setting up feisty rock trio Them Crooked Vultures in 2009. It was a rare chance to create his dream band where he would take a back seat on the drums, have Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones on bass and Queens of the Stone Age's vocalist Josh Homme as the band leader.

For Northern Irish singer Gary Lightbody from rock group Snow Patrol, his side project Tired Pony was an avenue to unveil his hidden love for American roots music, with the release of two rather beautiful albums, 2010's The Place We Ran From and 2013's The Ghost of the Mountain, full of majestic harmonies and lovelorn lyrics.

It all goes to prove that side projects are essential to a musician's life. Whether a chance to take risks, fulfil personal ambitions or simply have fun, they are often the secret when it comes to maintaining an artist's mojo and, ultimately, their careers.


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